Tuesday, May 26, 2009

She Sells Sea Shells

(Here's the latest installment in Eberle's Women's Art is Women's Work series. As an added bonus, there's a reprise of the Alice in Wonder Band's setting of my own poem "She Sells Seashells," recorded in 2004. You'll find this at the bottom of the post; for more info on that, check out this link. & thanks for all the nice wishes!)

My heart is like the fair sea-shell,
There's music ever in it…
Eliza Cook (1818-1889)

In 1824, when a gro
up of Jane Austen characters went walking on the Cobb in Lyme Regis, they might have passed a mysterious figure, might even have noticed her on the horizon if they had not been so absorbed in their own concerns and in Louisa Musgrove’s unfortunate accident. Jane’s heroine, Anne Elliot, especially might have been attracted by the sight of a solitary woman walking in the distance, by how at home she seemed in her solitary state within the landscape of cliff and sea.

Supposed to be unique in structure, the Cobb was built in medieval times by driving rows of oak-trees into the sea floor as pilings. Massive boulders, known as cowstones, and cobbles filled the gaps between tree trunks. Empty barrels were used to float boulders into position, creating 600 feet of jetty and protecting one of the oldest artificial harbors in England.

At the time of this visit by characters in Persuasion, Lyme was a firmly established backwater. It had gained some reputation because of fossils that had been found there, but other than this quirky claim to fame, Lyme had been bypassed by history for quite some time. It flourished as a seaport in the thirteenth century, but by the nineteenth, its artificial harbor had become too small for commercial shipping. In the 1770s when seaside tourism was on the rise among the middle classes, it was accessible by a direct coach route from Bath and attracted some visitors, but never attained the status of a truly fashionable resort. It was sunny and inexpensive—a backwater, with a tang of fishermen and smugglers.

Who is she, that woman walking alone by the cliffs with a hammer?

She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore,
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.

This rhyme was written about a woman named Mary Anning. In 1824 Mary was twenty-five years old, almost exactly Anne Elliot’s age, but she was separated from Anne by
more than the pages of a book. Mary’s family had been subsisting—barely—on parish relief, the welfare system of the time, since the death of her father. However, even more than class and extreme poverty would have divided these two early nineteenth century women—Mary’s father had helped lead workers in violent demonstrations when economic policies and conditions led to desperation and starvation in the region. Very few members of the upper class condoned this type of agitation for social change.

Since the age of fifteen when her father died, Mary had been roaming the seaside
alone. She had helped her father collect fossils from the cliffs to sell in order to supplement his income as a cabinet-maker; he taught Mary a great deal about this, how to clean and display the fossils as well as how to identify different species. Mary’s interest was at least as keen as the poverty which she planned to alleviate by her fossil sales. She began reading widely in her chosen field and dissecting marine life in order to connect ancient creatures with the present. Her discoveries included skeletons of two large ancient sea creatures, the ichthyosaur and the first Plesiosaurus, fin-bones of an ancient shark, four new species of ammonites, a jawless fish and the first fossil remains of a flying reptile to be found in England. She had, in fact, a passion for every aspect of these encoded records of the past and her ability to decode them shone out in flashes of genius rivaling that of any of the paleontologists of her era.

If a male figure walked beside her, it was in all likelihood a scholar or collector; she acted as guide to many of these. Several of Mary’s discoveries and interpretations of the fossil record dramatically changed scientific theories about the past. Even though the value of her knowledge was recognized in certain ways, her identity as a self-educated working class woman basically doomed her efforts to obscurity. Her finds were exhibited in museums and her observations made use of by others, but it seems that her origins as a young girl peddler of fossils at a stall outside a seaside carpentry shop could not be forgiven by the educated elite. She went consistently unmentioned in scholarly works that discussed her discoveries and her ideas, and the British Museum somehow lost significant portions of her finds (some of her contributions are still displayed there.) Although her life was marked by a remarkable number of calamities, what she expressed bitterness about was being ignored by people whose scientific knowledge was inferior to her own. According to her friend Anna Maria Pinney, Mary was outspoken: “She glories in being afraid of no one and in saying everything she pleases,” Anna wrote in her journal in 1831.

There is a haunting
quality about one of her discoveries that resonates across more than a century—she theorized that a purple powder she found in a tiny chamber within a belemnite (a kind of ancient squid) was in fact fossilized ink. In the spirit that distinguished her greatness among her peers, she tested this theory by grinding the powder, reconstituted it, and then used it in a drawing of an ichthyosaur. She sent this drawing of an extinct creature made from the body of another to one of the scholarly men who went fossil-hunting with her and who took credit for some of her discoveries. Like many women, she was aware that she too was being written into history with a kind of invisible ink. Her loneliness at times must have been intense, and that is what Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot, isolated in her own way by the people around her and without the companionship of a kindred spirit, would have understood very well.

And then my spirit pined,
And, like the sea-shell for its parent sea,
Moaned for those kindred souls it could not find,
And panted to be free.
Anne Charlotte Lynch Botta (1815-1891)

Jane Austen stayed in Lyme with her family in the summer of 1804, and wrote to her sister Cassandra about her amusements: walking on the Cobb, dancing in the Assembly Rooms, and bathing from a bathing machine. She actually mentions Anning, Mary’s father, as having given a valuation for a broken box lid over which she was having a dispute with her landlord. One century later, in 1904, Beatrix Potter would spend a holiday in Lyme, and use some views of the town for the book she was working on at the time, Little Pig Robinson.

Pix from Top
Mary Anning (public domain image)
Lyme Regis (public domain image by Arpingstone)
Blue Lias Cliffs at Lyme Regis (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Licensed by MichaelMaggs)
Coade Stone Ammonites (GNUFDL by Ballista)
Cast of "Plesiosaurus" macrocephalus fossil found by Mary Anning (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Licensed by Funk Monk)
Belemnite Fossils
(public domain image by Arpingstone)

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  1. Thank You John.
    Strange.I've never been to Lyme Regis & you know about it than me!(it can only be a couple of hundred miles from where i live!)
    Local to me is an Artist who makes handmade picture frames+Mirrors from Sea Shells (were 60 miles from The Sea.I wonder where he gets them from?.perhaps Lyme Regis!)Anyway..........I will take a photo for you soon.

  2. The Cob has always fascinated me. I thought I knew a bit about it, but you have filled in many of the gaps. Thanks for that.

  3. Hello John - I love Lyme Regis with a passion, so does my mum, so I'll direct her here...By the way, have a blog award for you so if you'd like to stop by you can collect it from mine!

  4. I wish I had known this story when I visited Lyme Regis. I did walk The Cob, but I was thinking of The French Lieutenant's Woman at the time - that, and anticipating the treacherous descent. At intervals, there are steps leading up/down the Cob. They are nothing more than stones that protrude from the structure. There is no railing, and nothing connects the steps. Add a certain general damp and sliminess, and you have a situation that turns my blood cold. However, despite that,I have very fond memories of Lyme Regis. Next time I visit there, I'll think about Mary Anning, instead. Thank you, Eberle. Wonderful, as always.

  5. Hi Tony, Dave, MAB & Sandra:

    So great that you enjoyed this, especially as all folks who have a more direct connection to the place.

    Tony: Would love to see a photo.

    Dave: You're very welcome!

    MAB: Hope your mum likes it here! & thanks for the award!

    Sandra: Geez, it sounds a bit daunting! I think it would be interesting to think about Mary Anning in the landscape (at least as I imagine it).

  6. Eberle - very nice post. You should cross post these at some women's sites.

    The posts here aer so rich in content, have you submitted your site to all the search engines and do you participate in stumble upon, digg, delicious, etc? these sites tend to relaly like posts with research and layered content.

    Luv it!

  7. Hi Jen:

    Thanks for your kind words & support. No, I haven't looked into those, tho I've thought about it! (next best thing?)


  8. Thank you John for the waves of delight you do bring. Sea shells are often brought to me by my students. I have a collection. My students are gladdened to have their shells among my known treasures. One afternoon as one of my students was listening to his shell, we wrote...

    Seashells hold the whispers of wind and sea
    All of life becomes known to me
    A world of wonder and wishes of no end
    Sometimes real sometimes pretend.

  9. Thanks Rose Marie-- that's a lovely poem. I think there is a real fascination with the "world" inside a shell.


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